by Roberta Gayle, contemporary (2003)
Arabesque, $5.99, ISBN 1-58314-425-0
Taking a leaf out of that movie My Best Friend's Wedding, Roberta Gayle's Christmas offering The Holiday Wife is actually a well-written story that manages to rise above its implausible premise. If we want to be anal about labels, I'd say that readers more open to reading a chick-lit novel will like this book better than those looking for a straightforward boy-meets-girl story. For one, there are two women and one man involved in the relationship.
Maddie Davis returns home from her stint in Egypt (she's a linguist based in that country) to celebrate Christmas with her family in Richtown, Pennsylvania. She is also back in town to attend the reading of her Great-Aunt Becky's will. Imagine her surprise when she realizes that Becky had left her the woman's mansion.
Meanwhile, Warner Davis has been helping out his best friend's wife Samantha and the daughter Sabrina after his no-good SOB friend went MIA without a word. He thinks that he and Samantha can have a good thing going. He may pop the question. But first he will need to get a divorce. See, he's married to Maddie. It's a marriage in name only - they married while they were in college to get some scholarship thingie, and you know what? I'm trying to forget that the marriage of convenience thingie is in this story so let's not dwell anymore on that premise.
Maddie at first decides to see if Samantha is the right woman for Warner, her reasoning is that she will not grant the divorce if she thinks that the woman is not okay. I could have happily fed her a knuckle sandwich right there and then. There's nothing like a busybody know-nothing self-proclaimed know-it-all to ruin everybody's holidays. However, as the story progresses, I grow to like Maddie. She can be irritatingly selfish and even juvenile at times, but she has some self-awareness and when she realizes that she is wrong, she goes the extra mile to make up with the wronged party. That makes her okay in my book. Ms Gayle allows Samantha to hold her own in the story without resorting to cheap Evil Psychotic Other Woman theatrics. But on the whole The Holiday Wife is more about Maddie than about Maddie, Warner, and Samantha. Maddie is a decent woman, but she is also a woman that has spent her life running away from problems. It is only when she finally decides to work out her issues with her mother that she can find some closure in her life.
This story fares very well when it is dealing with Maddie and her family. Her religious and superstitious mother's ongoing feud with the atheist Becky until Becky's death may be a source of humorous moments, but this feud caused strains in the relationship between Maddie and her mother when Maddie takes after Becky in temperament and beliefs.
The romance between Maddie and Warner - and the characterization of Warner - doesn't hold up as well as Maddie's family drama. Warner realizes that he loves Maddie in a perplexingly anticlimatic scene. This makes him come off like a silly guy that doesn't know what he wants in life. I understand where the author is coming from when she has Warner saying that he loves both Maddie and Samantha, only that he loves one as a lover and wife and the other as a good friend. Unfortunately, the author never actually succeeds in showing me how Warner and Maddie come to this realization of Grand Love and Forever After in the first place. So in the end, the whole love triangle fizzles out into a mundane resolution. In a way, I am grateful that the author has set up some contrived developments in the love triangle to prevent messy bedhopping (Samantha and Warner have never done the deed, and neither have Warner and Maddie), but at the same time, these same contrivances also prevent me from seeing what the big deal is between Maddie and Warner. Samantha and Warner, I can see why they are attracted to each other, but Maddie and Warner, nope. This is where The Holiday Wife makes its near-fatal flaw.
Still, Maddie is a very human heroine in that while she is not perfect, she grows as a person. She has no annoying sexual baggages to bog down her personality. Warner, his indecisive nature aside, is a generally a good man that tries to do the right thing. The secondary characters, mostly Maddie's family members and friends, are a lively bunch that adds humor and happy family moments to the story. It's Christmas, after all. So while the romance eventually fizzles out, The Holiday Wife still remains a good read. It's all due to the endearing cast of characters and the deft way the author handles these characters so that they come off as real and likable.
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